For Imagination Stage’s ‘BFG’ puppeteers, canned tomatoes are free weights


Vegetable can strength training exercises done by the cast of “THE BFG” at Imagination Stage. (Courtesy Imagination Stage)
July 15

Some actors feel pressure to stay in bikini shape year round. Others just need to make sure they are in puppet-lifting shape by June and that they keep their bodies strong and trim through August. You could call their fitness regime the BFG workout, and their secret to maintaining toned arms is four cans of stewed tomatoes.

“I feel like I’ve done squats every day,” said Matthew Schleigh, an actor who is midway through a run that requires him to perform with a 13-foot-tall puppet strapped to his back. “The BFG,” a theatrical adaptation of Welsh writer Roald Dahl’s children’s book about a big friendly giant, continues at Imagination Stage through Aug. 10, but the actors started working out in May.

Co-director Eric J. Van Wyk gave each actor two 14.5-ounce cans of tomatoes, then asked the actors to lie on their backs and extend their arms out to the sides. While gripping the cans, the actors slowly raised their arms straight up. On the first day, Van Wyk told them to take two minutes raising the cans; the next day, he stretched that out to three. On day three, each actor got two cans of tomatoes tapped together and very gradually lifted almost two pounds in each hand.

“He wanted to keep adding weight, but he didn’t want to give us giant cans of Dinty Moore beef stew,” Schleigh said.

The objective was for the actors to practice making the slow, deliberate movements that are crucial to manipulating puppets. In “The BFG,” he stars as the Hungry Fleshlumpeater, the biggest and baddest of the giants. Two other black-clad actors maneuver the giant’s arms. From inside the body cavity, Schleigh can see straight ahead but has limited peripheral vision.


The mean giants plot their next move during the witching hour in “The BFG”, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, at Imagination Stage that runs through August 10. (Margot Schulman)

In rehearsal, Van Wyk also asked the actors to spend short periods staring out the studio windows, observing changes on the Bethesda streetscape below. Then he asked them to try to see as much as possible in their field of vision while lifting the tomato cans.

“At first, a lot of us were like, ‘How is this going to help?’ ” Schleigh recalled. But when they finally began working with the puppets, which Van Wyk made himself, everything clicked. “We said, ‘Oh, this makes a lot of sense.’ It became a way to practice becoming more spatially aware.”

His puppet is made of foam, fabric and plastic and is strapped to him like a snug-fitting hiking pack. Schleigh says he feels the 35 pounds most when he sits down and stands back up, and it’s important for him to maintain his balance. Several actors also have to lift each other while manipulating the puppets. For example, three guys hold actress Megan Graves up toward the Fleshlumpeater’s mouth so Schleigh can pretend he’s about to gobble her up, and it appears the giant is clutching her with his hands. For help with choreographic logistics, Imagination Stage hired Synetic Theater fight guru Ben Cunis. The resulting illusory effects are impressive, Schleigh said. He can tell, because children in the audience are quietest when the giants are onstage.

“They are really into it,” he said. “They are just so awed by the living, breathing thing that they see onstage.”

‘Side Show’s’ next address

Late last week, both The Post and the New York Times reported that the producers of “Side Show,” which closed Sunday at the Kennedy Center, were eying a possible move to Broadway. Both stories mentioned the St. James Theatre, where Woody Allen’s critically panned musical “Bullets Over Broadway” is playing to just slightly more than half-sold houses, as a likely new venue.

But what a difference four days can make in the fast-paced world of commercial-theater real estate. Monday night, the producers of “Holler if Ya Hear Me” announced they were abruptly closing their musical, which features songs by the late rapper Tupac Shakur. The premature shutter will open up 47th Street’s Palace Theatre, which is operated by the Nederlander Organization.

The musical required an $8 million investment and never returned more than $175,000 a week in gross revenues. During early workshops, Hollywood up-and-comer Chadwick Boseman played the lead, but he got a better offer — to play James Brown in a film — and was replaced by slam poet Saul Williams. The musical received mixed reviews, and it seems that for the tourists who dominate Broadway ticket markets, slam poets and dead rap stars weren’t much of a draw.

A spokeswoman for the Nederlanders referred calls about the Palace Theatre to Richard Martini, executive producer of “Holler.” Martini laughed and referred calls back to the Nederlanders, saying they’re the ones who need to comment about who or what is using the theater next. “You’re not likely to get much out of them,” he cautioned. Although he’s cutting his losses, he had kind words for the Kennedy Center’s reworked “Side Show.” “I’ve heard it’s a very good production,” Martini said. “It sounds like they’ve fixed a lot of flaws in the show.”

Raise a glass for Fringe

If every patron who bought a ticket to the Capital Fringe Festival also bought a beer at the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent, then 3,000 people bought tickets to see Fringe theater and dance performances this weekend. As it happens, the festival is not releasing ticket-sale numbers, and there may not be a 1-to-1 correlation between beer and ticket sales. Some of the college kids putting on shows can’t drink, at least one playwright ordered a rum-and-coke, and some patrons likely enjoyed their beer so much they had two. Or three. Or more.

For the first time in the festival’s nine-year history, Fringe partnered exclusively with American Eagle Distributing to fill its taps. That doesn’t mean Fringe-goers are downing Bud Light instead of Natty Boh. Actually, they have fairly discriminating taste. Back in May, Fringe chef and food manager Matty Griffiths asked American Eagle to set aside reserve casks of New Victory Swing Session Saison, a spring specialty beer brewed in southern Pennsylvania. Long after run-of-the-mill bars have run out, the farmhouse ale is still flowing freely at Fringe.

As for other ways to measure whether the festival’s opening weekend was a success, Fringe divulged this much: Thirty-one shows sold-out, and more than 80 performances played to more than 50 percent capacity. At Fringe — but not on Broadway — a half-full house can be reason to cheer.

style@washpost.com

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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